I admit it. I’ve been in some kind of funk lately. No actually, not lately, this has been going on for some time now. The exact nature of this funk is difficult to describe, and especially so when I am trying to do so without offending the sensibilities of proper and sincere religious people. I am one of those proper and sincere religious folk myself, which means that my internal dialogue has been offending me for quite a while. So, if you are reading this, and happen to get offended, then we can commiserate together. Just don’t shoot the messenger on this one.
The problem exists because I am naturally a part of two separate worlds. One of these is the land that all of humanity lives in. It cannot be escaped, save for moving to the jungles of Brazil or becoming some sort of religious hermit (but more on that one later). It is dark at times, beautiful at others, yet always convulsing and turning somehow. This world, like my barely functioning clothes drier, is making loud noises, fits-and-starts, and sometimes barely functioning in any measure of success. Yet, it is where we are, and there is also great beauty in it. From natural creations, to the Burj Dubai, and even a stranger picking up something you dropped on the street there is wonder. God loves it, and like an abused spouse, so do I.
The other world I straddle is the world of the Church. All kinds of people, from poufy-haired, multi-pinky-ringed televangelists to African children in Sunday school are a part of it. There is amazing beauty in the Church. The great array of what is good in the world is all a child of Christ’s bride. It doesn’t matter what the likes of Christopher Hitchens says, God’s goodness is reflected in His Church.
I have often throughout my life taken refuge and comfort in the world of the Church because I know that the other world is victim of a fatal disease that rots its flesh, a cancer that grows and devours. I expect it to be this way. The problem that I have been increasingly having is that the world of the Church I have allowed to nurture me is seemingly growing increasingly very ill herself.
Yes, I am aware that the Church being an institution full of humans, is subject to all the frailties of man. But those have always been beautiful scars in my eyes, reminders of the grace and power of God. Maybe it is just me, but those scars are looking less and less romantic.
Now, I am in no danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and leaving the Church entirely. I know that there is no chance that I can tread water on my own long enough to point out all the holes in the ship for everyone else to plug. Further, God gave us the institution of the Church for a reason, and His wisdom infinitely trumps mine.
This difficulty in the Church world was highlighted to me a few weeks ago as I looked back on the events of that particular week:
I started the week with my day off (Monday), working on different chores and things I had to do to keep my life going, pretty bland, but it is life.
Tuesday was spent planning at another staff meeting. We talked about events and programs that were coming up. Staff meetings are not part of the fun of ministry in any way, really. But they are a necessary evil (if I can use that word so flippantly). Nothing would get accomplished if proper planning was not done. I spent a lot of time in staff meeting this week wondering what lasting value much of what we were discussing would achieve. Maybe that is the wrong thought to have, but it was my thought nonetheless.
Later Tuesday night, we had High School group. As we lead worship, played games, and taught, I kept wondering if any student would remember anything I said past 9:00 PM, when they left the building. I was later corrected (gently) by one of my students, who told me that Tuesday night had a big effect on him, and there were probably others. But I guess my real issue is with the general effectiveness. I will not belittle the powerful impact God may be having on one person in the group, or even pockets of them. I have also learned that times when I think no impact is being made can be the most impactful. But after doing this for many years, I know the look in the students’ eyes that say “If we could have left after game time, I would have.”
Wednesday was similar to Tuesday in that I did office work to further the ministry, and Wednesday night was Junior High. In the case of Junior Highers, small victories matter. I had to rejoice that no one was injured and no one was sent home early. Also, one of the students gave a testimony of how God had a powerful impact on him over the last two months.
Thursday, I spent a big portion of the day at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop writing, reading, and hanging out.
Friday, I did general chores, and ended the day at a church gathering at someone’s home. It was fun. Like all church gatherings, it has to be concluded with an extended time of teaching about something. Let me break down the fourth-wall and ask the reader a question here: How many sermons in your life can you remember, and had a lasting effect on your life? Well, this Friday night teaching was for me in the pile with the majority of teachings I’ve heard.
Saturday, Peichi and I had fun and hung out with some friends at our house that we know from the foreign exchange community. I ended up in a very deep conversation with one of the ladies at our house. She talked about how she felt alone and kind of floating in her life. She wanted to be a part of doing something that made a difference in the world. I asked her if she was willing to help do some work at the church for us. She said she would, and she has. In the back of my head I have been hoping that she continues in her quest for meaning, and hoping her involvement in helping at the church isn’t leading her in the wrong direction.
Sunday was a church service. It was similar to most church services. I like our church. I think God does work in people’s hearts there. Although I can’t remember any of the Prophetic Words and I don’t know of anyone who got healed during prayer time, or anyone who made a decision for Christ, I am sure that God worked in people’s lives. I am not self-important enough to believe that I am qualified to determine the effectiveness of these things. There are weeks when I leave feeling just tired. Then again, I’ve spent the last 14 years making church services happen.
That was my week.
When I looked back on it all, the powerful times where I really felt God doing stuff was not on Tuesday, of Wednesday, or even Sunday. I know He did do stuff. I’m not denying that. But the times I really felt like God was using me to make a difference was on Thursday as I wrote in the coffee shop. I had two long conversations with total strangers. We talked about everything from geopolitics to budding technology. We also talked about faith.
Mind you, I am not one of those people who is always walking up to strangers and acting like they’re my best friend. I am more inclined to be deeply involved in internal dialogue when in line at the supermarket than to carry on a conversation there. But these coffee shop conversations just naturally happened. They felt easy and natural. Even the parts when we were talking about God felt fun and light, as if the His Spirit were guiding us in them. I wasn’t the guy sitting and waiting to accost someone with a canned salvation message. I was the guy watching God unfold something in front of me.
It was beautiful. For the first time for me in a long time that Thursday, the feverish outside world was crashing into the holy world of the Church, and I was right in the middle of it. I left the coffee shop feeling energized and excited. God had actually showed up. He had done something in front of me that gave me the impression that there was some sort of lasting difference made. It felt like getting in the shower after a long afternoon of gardening, with dirt under your fingernails and the smell of soil on your skin.
I can’t do the spiritual hermit thing. I know that there is a great value in keeping oneself from being polluted by the world, but I can’t see that as being separable from looking out for widows and orphans and being a light to the world around me. In fact, the more I approach those semi-cloistered places lately, the more I have an asthmatic choking feeling, like there isn’t enough air. I’m not leaving the building. I just need to keep the windows rolled down and the fresh air flowing.
Addendum: I know that this brings up some real issues, and I don’t write this as a sermon. I often feel that people write the word “I” too much, and I am always scanning my writing trying to get rid of as many instances of that as I can (that sentences contained 4). This piece is riddled with them, but that is because it is one of the most stream-of-consciousness things I’ve written in a while. I saved it for a week, and edited, but I still have the sinking feeling that someone might read and want to misunderstand, argue, debate. I don’t really have a desire to enter that fray. This is really just an opened internal dialogue of sorts. I am not trying to be self-defeating. I think honesty in this regard honors the Lord. If you have thoughts or feelings that will honor this dialogue, please feel free, though. -Ryan